10/12/2012 12:45 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2012

Harnessing the Potential of Older People

In every continent and almost every country, our population is growing older. Increasing life expectancy, thanks to improved diets, better sanitation, medical advances and greater prosperity, as well as falling birth rates are altering the age profile of our societies at a remarkable rate. By 2000, for the first time in history, there were more people sharing our planet over 60 than under five. Such is the pace of change that, by 2050, the older generation will out-number those under 15.

It is in the most highly developed countries where these demographic changes started. But they are actually progressing fastest outside the richest nations. By 2050, the developing world will be home to eight out of ten of the world's older people. This unprecedented silent revolution will clearly be one of the greatest forces shaping our societies over the coming decades. Yet, there is little sign so far that all the right policies and actions needed have been put in place to respond successfully to these challenges and create a world in which all generations can flourish.

It was to help identify what needs to happen that the UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, together with HelpAge International, produced a comprehensive report into the demographic changes under way. Our report -- "Ageing in the Twenty-first Century: A Celebration and a Challenge" -- draws not only on expert input from over 20 UN and international agencies and entities, but also the views of hundreds of older citizens from across the world.

The report is a welcome antidote to those who continue to see the fact that we are living longer just as a burden. It highlights how the opportunities from this demographic shift are as endless as the contributions that a socially and economically active, secure and healthy ageing population can bring. It shows the important role that older people, with the talents, skills and life experience, are already playing. What was striking was the strong common desire of the older people who took part in our consultations to be active contributors to their economies and societies.

But it also makes clear that there are very important challenges that need to be faced now. While progress has been made in many countries to provide the conditions where this longevity dividend can be reaped, much more needs to be done, particularly taking into account that the population of 60 and older will be growing very fast over the next decades. Disturbingly, we also found evidence that many older people lacked dignity and security, facing discrimination and worse. The problems can be greatest for women who make up the majority of older people and can often be marginalized in their societies.

Our report says putting this right and harnessing the rich potential of older people requires new approaches -- and quickly -- to a whole range of issues including health care, employment and retirement, housing, transportation, leisure and inter-generational relations. This is a challenge for all countries but greatest for developing countries that are often the least prepared for the changes underway.

In particular, the report found three areas where action is required. First, there is an urgent need to guarantee income security and access to essential health and social services for older people, including the increasing needs for long-term care. This requires a strong political commitment and planning now to implement the necessary reforms.

Second, we must invest in health, education and employment for the young people today as the best way to improve the lives of future generations of older persons. But this must be combined with flexible employment, lifelong learning and retraining opportunities to enable and encourage current generations of older people to remain in the labour market. We cannot afford to discard or waste their experience and expertise. Finally, we must involve everyone including governments, employers, civil society, communities, families and older persons themselves to develop a new culture in which their contributions to their economies and societies are recognized and promoted.

"Ageing in the Twenty-first Century" says the evidence is already available to help us overcome these and other challenges successfully. It shows, too, that the rewards from getting this right will far outweigh the costs. What is required is to build the consensus across society -- and across generations -- to put the policies and investments in place to deliver our ambition for a world in which everyone, old and young, can live an active, secure and rewarding life. After all, today's young people will be part of a population of over two billion older people by 2050.

It is an irony that rising life expectancy, which is a great triumph of development, is too often forecast to have a negative impact on our societies. Our report shows that there is no reason for such a pessimistic view. But reaping the full potential of our aging world requires us to show courage, commitment and vision now.

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